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Average Joe and Ultimate Modern Orthodox Jew

 

I’m proud to have had a connection with Joe Lieberman, who passed away this week at the age of 82.

We were not on a first-name basis, but each time we met we would reminisce about shared friends and experiences as neighbors in the close-knit Jewish community of New Haven, CT. There are so many who fondly and proudly recount their “Joe and Hadassah” experiences or run in the same circles as their children.

Joe Lieberman served as one of the greatest exemplars of Modern Judaism.
Observant Jew, Senator, almost Vice President, approachable, pious, knowledgeable, down to earth, principled, Zionist, bipartisan, centrist, a mensch. These are just some of the words being used in numerous tributes to a great American.

Joe Lieberman personified both the “average Joe” and the Ultimate Modern Orthodox Jew.

“He was a senator, but at the same time, he sat in seats like everybody else, he enjoyed the kiddush like everybody else,” noted my friend Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT. He recalled Lieberman’s fondness for cholent and whiskey. “When he walked home from shul, he got soaked on rainy days. He was one of us. People visiting Stamford would be like, ‘He’s davening mincha like me?’”

So many people have average Joe stories – of davening with him, with being in shul when Joe led services and said Kaddish, with encountering him and Hadassah at a shiva home. There are myriad stories of congressmen or staffers having a Shabbat meal with or joining him as he walked to or from the Capitol on Shabbat for a critical vote.

At the same time, Joe Lieberman lived a celebrated life of public service and accomplishment as a proud, Modern Orthodox Jew. I remember the excitement of the 2000 presidential election. We were so close to an Orthodox Jew in the White House! Whatever one’s politics, Joe Lieberman embodied the best of Modern Orthodoxy and shone a light on faith, in general, and Judaism, in particular, that will impact the American Jewish community long into the future.

It is not easy to define Modern Orthodoxy. I believe it means to take Jewish observance and the teachings of Judaism and integrate them into and elevate the modern world. Some Jews focus exclusively on the Orthodoxy, while others leave behind the tradition and embrace only the Modernity. True Modern Orthodoxy is able to bridge the gap and span the spectrum to positively impact all Jews and humanity.

Joe Lieberman did this. In both Judaism and politics, he built bridges and was a passionate centrist. After his passing, Jewish organizations across the religious and political spectrums offered tributes. I can’t think of many other Orthodox Jews who could garner such praise.

Agudath Israel of America’s Rabbi Abba Cohen said, “I regularly was asked by Jewish students if I knew ‘Senator Lieberman, the Sabbath observant Jew.’ It was clear that he was a source of pride and inspiration to young people. He was an exemplar of Orthodox Judaism to the world. The senator and his Torah observance made an impression on people and intrigued them. People were influenced by, and attracted to, him and his values.”

From a different part of the community, the National Council of Jewish Women noted, “He championed abortion access, LGBTQ+ equality and gun safety. Our communities are safer because of his leadership. May his memory be for a blessing.”

Joe Lieberman made a broad, deep, and meaningful Modern Orthodox impact. Throughout his career, many compared him to the Biblical Joseph, a Jew who remained faithful to his roots even as he rose to prominence in a foreign land and literally saved Egypt. The comparisons grew even stronger when Joe Lieberman ran for Vice President and nearly achieved the equivalent of Joseph’s Viceroy role.

Last night, I reread Lieberman’s book about Shabbat, The Gift of Rest. It is a deeply personal journey of how the Senator observed Shabbat, insights into Judaism and faith, and quite a number of entertaining stories. The book is a wonderful guide for how to celebrate Shabbat and a testament to the relevance of faith in the modern world. It also provides insight into Joe Lieberman’s religious philosophy and inspiration.

While in college and law school, Lieberman writes, his religious observance lapsed somewhat. (There’s a humorous story about Lobster Newburgh.) His grandmother’s passing in 1967, though, sparked a return to more serious observance. Why?

“Uppermost in my mind was the worry that Baba was my link with the Judaism of my ancestors. If I let go of the link in the chain, it would be broken and lost to me and my children after me. And so I slowly began my return to regular synagogue attendance and Sabbath religious observance.” (p.17)

Joe Lieberman lived his life to ensure that the past would link to the future. He knew that the future would be brighter only if it allowed the past to live on.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher and longtime friend of Joe Lieberman, includes a Dvar Torah he heard from Joe Liberman in his book on Chumash. Why in Judaism does the day begin at night? It’s dark at night. One can truly only recognize a new day with the light of the day. It would make more sense for the Jewish day to begin in the morning!

Joe Lieberman answered that daytime is bright and warm, a time for growth and hope. Nighttime, on the other hand, is a time of darkness, despair, and fear. Judaism teaches that the day “begins” at a time of need since our purpose is to fill that need. We can only appreciate the need for light when we encounter darkness. The Jewish day begins at night as a constant message for us to fill the void and add light to the darkness.

Joe Lieberman, the average Joe and Ultimate Modern Orthodox Jew, lived a life of bringing light to the darkness, of bringing Torah Judaism to bear on a world sorely in need of its warmth and illumination. It’s a light and the kind of life we all must strive for to brighten up the darkness today.

May his memory always be a blessing and an inspiration.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach in Long Island and serves as President of the New York Board of Rabbis. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.